In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman’s research proves that 69% of problems in a relationship are unsolvable. These may be things like personality traits your partner has that rub you the wrong way, or long-standing issues around spending and saving money. Their research findings emphasize the idea that couples must learn to manage conflict rather than avoid or attempt to eliminate it.

Trying to solve unsolvable problems is counterproductive, and no couple will ever completely eliminate them. However, discussing them is constructive and provides a positive opportunity for understanding and growth. Let’s look at three “conflict blueprints” to help you and your partner constructively manage conflict around unsolvable problems.

Conflict Blueprint #1: Current Conflicts

This blueprint addresses current conflicts. Based on game theory, a mathematical model that describes how to manage conflict and improve cooperation with others, this blueprint stresses that both partners put off persuasion tactics until each one can state their position clearly and fully. This involves each speaker and listener taking turns.

Both partners must be emotionally calm when speaking. The listener should take notes on what the speaker says. The speaker should focus on using a softened start-up, stating feelings by using “I” statements, and asking for needs to be met in a positive and respectful way.

Tips to effectively navigate Blueprint #1:

  • Take a 15 to 20 minute break if things get too heated, and do something soothing and distracting that will help you calm down. When you return to talk, only one person should “have the floor” to talk while the other partner listens. No interruptions!
  • Begin the conversation with a soft or curious tone. Use an “I” statement and express something you need. For example, “Could I ask you something? I felt embarrassed when you spoke down to me in front of our friends. Could you please be aware of that in the future?”
  • Use repair attempts. Say key phrases to help your partner see that you are trying to understand and deescalate the conflict. For example, you can apologize, use humor appropriately, say “I hear you” or “I understand” and so on. Body language is important, too. Nod your head, make eye contact, and even offer a physical gesture of affection.

Conflict Blueprint #2: Attachment Injuries

This blueprint focuses on discussing past emotional injuries, often known as triggers, that occurred prior to or during the relationship. Also called “attachment injuries” by Dr. Sue Johnson, these can create resentment from past events that have gone unresolved. These frequently involve breaches of trust.

It is crucial to avoid being negative when discussing triggers. You both need to speak calmly and understand that both of your viewpoints are valid, even if you disagree. The goals are to gain comprehension of each other’s perspective and to acknowledge that regrettable incidents are inevitable in long-term relationships.

There are five primary components to a discussion about an emotional injury. These five steps are from the Gottmans’ Aftermath of a Fight or Regrettable Incident booklet. A couple should focus on describing how they feel, expressing their individual personal realities, exploring any underlying triggers, taking responsibility and apologizing, and forming productive plans for healing.

Tips to effectively navigate Blueprint #2:

  • Offer a genuine apology to your partner regardless of your agreement or disagreement with their perspective. Focus only on the fact that you hurt your partner and that you need to take responsibility.
  • Verbalize what you can take responsibility for, as well as any other factors that played into you getting caught up in the fight. For example, “I was too harsh when I spoke to you” or “I was stressed all day and took it out on you.”
  • Ask your partner what he or she needs from you to heal and move forward. Be sure to follow through on the request.

Conflict Blueprint #3: Gridlock and Dialogue

Couples are often either “gridlocked” or “in dialogue” on their perpetual problems, and research suggests that these problems concern personality differences or core fundamental needs. Being in dialogue, the preferred status, is when the couple has learned to accept their differences on that topic even though minor arguments arise occasionally. Overall, the couple has made peace on the issue and they agree to disagree.

Moving from gridlock to dialogue involves examining the meaning and dreams that form the basis for each partner’s steadfast perspective. Each partner may be able to find a way to honor their partner’s dreams, which often amounts to fulfilling a core need regarding the issue at stake.

Those couples who successfully navigate a recurring problem in their relationship have learned to express acceptance of their partner’s personality, and they can talk about and appreciate the underlying meaning of each other’s position on the issue.

Tips to effectively navigate Blueprint #3

  • Take turns speaking and listening. As the speaker, you should communicate clearly and honestly. Where does your perspective or position on the issue come from, and what does it symbolize for you? What kinds of lifelong dreams or core issues are at stake for you?
  • As the listener, you must create a safe space for the speaker. No judging or arguing, and don’t give advice or try to solve the problem. Show genuine interest in what your partner is telling you, and allow them enough time and space to fully communicate their concerns. Ask questions so that you can both fully explore the issue and its related meaning.
  • Find ways to create small compromises that can pave the way to larger plans. If your dreams differ, try to find areas where they overlap, or try to make plans to give each partner’s dreams a chance to grow and become reality.

All relationships have perpetual problems that crop up throughout your lives as a couple. Psychologist Dan Wile once said that “when choosing a long-term partner, you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unresolvable problems.” No one escapes this fact. Fortunately, we have real science that helps couples learn how to manage such conflicts and keep their love alive and well.


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More in Conflict Management
Managing vs. Resolving Conflict in Relationships: The Blueprints for Success
Marni Feuerman

Dr. Marni Feuerman, LCSW, LMFT is in private practice in Boca Raton, Florida where she specializes in couples therapy. Dr. Marni is certified in Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) and Discernment Counseling. She also blogs on About.com, Huffington Post and Dr. Oz’s ShareCare. For more information, visit her website.

  • Very interesting, but what happens in Bluprint #1 when it states
    “Both partners must be emotionally calm when speaking” and one or both don’t remain calm ie get angry? Is it agreed that this is likely to occur and if so that there will be accountability measures required ie
    an acceptable apology for our anger required?

    I have yet to read anywhere in any recommended methods of issue solving where both parties have agreed to give an acceptable apology if we lose our cool and get angry during the process.

    I would and have refused to enter into any resolution type process unless I felt safe from other peoples and my own anger. I think we need an accountability agreement FIRST to prepare for such likely anger and I propose an acceptable apology as the answer.

  • Concerned husband

    My wife just stopped being sexually interested in me. After our first child was bored she just stopped being interested in sex. It’s been almost 3 years now, where I have to basically chase her for sex. On top of that she let go and she has become a very unattractive woman. From having an amazing physique to being completely out of shape. I’ve also noticed she has lost her manners. She makes noises when she eats, makes noises with her throat to spit and sometimes with her nose. All of these factors make me feel repulsion towards her at a visceral level, and make me think that I made the wrong choice in life. I’ve had several conversations with her about the above subjects but things don’t seem to change. Perhaps somebody can give me any tips on how to solve this issue. I love my son and I would like to be present in his life, but at the same time I feel I don’t have the wife that I expected. I live in a constant state of regret but I can’t leave my son. Please share any thoughts.

    • A wife

      My flooded reaction to your post is, “Really? He must have read, at least, this blog to get to the bottom to write that. But how did he not understand what he read?”
      The “four horsemen” seem to be have a great foothold in your marriage. Your post shows evidence of each of the four horsemen, criticism, contempt for her, defensive about your own role in how she feels and stonewalling by suggesting your only way to fix it is by leaving.
      I guess it is possible that she is actually a spinster at heart and only wanted you for your sperm but I bet she actually picked you because she saw you as a strong, supportive man who was her best friend and would help her get through the early years of being a mother.
      There is no easy way to resolve your feelings or the problems in your marriage. The simplified options are runaway (which will breed a series of other more severe problems, I think), stick it out until your son is old enough to move out or spend time working it out together and be prepared to learn that you to have had a role in getting to the place you are now. All options are hard but all results of choices you made, now you need to be the dad and husband you want your son to be.